(5) El Norte Grande
We left San Pedro and made a beeline for the coast. It was only 2-1/2 hours away but it seemed to take forever in the straight line, monotone drone of the Atacama. At Tocopilla we lunched on fresh Soupa de Mariscos, dredging up oysters, clams and a few unidentifiable bits and pieces below the murky surface of the broth. As advertised by the patrons it was "muis rico."
Further up the coast we pulled off the road and found our home for the night. Camping is adding a dimension to this trip that would not otherwise have been attainable. We overdosed on surf, sand and sun and let the incoming tide lull us to sleep, into a deep and satisfying slumber not achievable in any hotel.
Early the next morning we found we had camped a few short kilometers from Huanillos, a very complete ghost town. We could have dined on ghost vapor and fought off long lost spirits of the dead. This appeared to be an abandoned salt mine from perhaps the early 1900's harboring over a hundred workers. The boss's mansion sat perched on an overlook commanding both a view of the sea and the mining operation he controlled. He suffered little discomfort I am sure.
I have always said that if you combine motorcycles with mountains, volcanoes and scantily clad women you have reached nirvana...that elusive 'G' spot that most couples strive to experience at least once in their lives. If you combine motorcycles with at least one of the above than you approach nirvana. That is what we did today.
Beside the coast was a mountain. On the mountain was a road...or at least a facimile thereof. I passed it by, but the draw was strong. I tried to resist but I couldn't. I returned to the junction and surveyed the ascending scar along the face of the mountain. With saliva beginning to flow I raced through the gears in a mad quest to chase the road up the mountain and over it onto the altiplano.
The situation was not unlike a similar event Peter and I endured while crossing the Salar de Uyuni a few years ago. The altitude was not as extreme but the conditions were similar. A slash barely ten feet wide marked the road. The inside track was soft and partially drifted. The outside track a mere two feet from a sheer drop-off to the coastal plain below. We ground our way upwards fighting switchbacks that were too tight to negotiate in a single pass. Finally perched at an obscene angle we stopped to evaluate the sanity of the situation. Was it the wisdom of our years that caused us to return to the pavement? Or, was it simply a lack of courage? I know my wife would have questioned my sanity. Peter would have questioned my courage. I simply called it a wise decision.
A few kilometers down the coast I found a lovely restaurant and dined with the knowledge I had made the right decision.
The Road from Hell intersected the highway again not far from the restaurant. This segment was paved as it afforded access to the salt mine "Mina Chica" some twenty kilometers inland. We chased the easy track to the mine winding our way up to the altiplano through a deep canyon with only enough room for us and the road...and a few trucks.
At the mine we talked our way through "security" and proceeded to ride around the works. However when we stopped to take some photographs we were descended upon by security forces. From all directions little red pickup trucks zoomed towards us with beacons flashing. The windows lowered effortlessly and we were unceremoniously told to vacate the premises. OK! No problem. We had seen what we wanted. We left in peace.
Back on Routa 1 we moved north to Iquique. We were unprepared for the progressive, westerness of the town. Behind the new, upscale facade of the southern extension of the city lurked the Victorian gingerbread town of the Nitrate years. Nitrate had built this town and its wonderful architecture. Fish meal sustained it as well as the largest Duty Free Port in Chile. A lot of the town is in decay but a large section is undergoing regeneration and preservation. It will take time but will truly be a Victorian gem when it is finished.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at April 18, 2006 08:08 PM GMT